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In the same way that humans go through different stages in their lives, so do software products. This is often referred to as a software release life cycle.

There are definite time periods that are associated with the different life cycle phases or “stages of development” within apps, but it can be difficult to predict when one phase ends and another begins. Each phase has its own distinct set of tasks and cross-functional department requirements, so it's important for product managers to understand each phase to successfully navigate the company through the software release life cycle.

As we dive into this article, I’ll add commentary about my experience selling and integrating BankerBox, a FinTech SaaS company for investment bankers into SS&C Intralinks with my co-founder, into the various phases of the SRLC.

What Is A Software Release Life Cycle (SRLC)?

The software release life cycle (SRLC) is a set of milestones that describe the various stages in a piece of software’s life cycle or sequential release timeline, from its conception to its eventual fully-baked release. The length of this life cycle varies based on a variety of factors, such as the type of product, its intended use, and industry security, compliance, and general standards.

For example, software applications typically have a shorter life cycle than most other products because new features and enhancements are released frequently via an Agile manner to meet changing market demands and new technological trends.

It is similar to the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC), which is a structure executed for software product development. The difference between these two life cycles is that the SDLC describes only the software development process and software design, while the Release Life Cycle describes not just its development but also its usability, testing, and distribution.

Software releases need to be carefully planned and tested (ideally by a testing team) in order to make sure they don’t cause more problems than they solve. A software release life cycle sets out a clear plan for achieving a successful release process through proper planning, testing, and bug fixes.

Businesses should use the software release life cycle to plan ahead for when and how they will update their web application or apps over time. This allows them to maintain a robust product that will continually meet both the needs of their users, core functionality, and the standards of the industry.

The 6 Stages Of Software Release Life Cycle

There are different stages of software release life cycles that can be used depending on the type of system being developed and the needs of the development team.

The “stages” mark milestones in a product’s development and allow the development team and project managers to track progress. They also allow for the development teams to track trends in the apps and web applications and do validations that improvements are being made through iterations over time. It typically holds the following six phases:

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1. Pre-Alpha Version

The first stage in the Software Release Life Cycle is Pre-Alpha. This stage of the process is completely focused on the development of a product rather than its marketing and public release. It states every action executed during the initial development before testing. The most common phases of the pre-alpha are analysis, designing, development, and unit testing.

A large part of the pre-alpha version is to identify how the software application needs to evolve in order to prepare for broader releases such as the alpha version or beta version. The development team needs to put strong software testing, usability, and automation in place to ensure stable transitions between the various phases of the software release life cycle.

With the SaaS solution my co-founder and I integrated into SS&C Intralinks, we had already vetted out and completed the Pre-Alpha phase. We had a working application that was architected, designed, and built out. It is however, important to note, that a small software company's definition of the Analysis, Designing, Development, and Unit Testing steps can absolutely differ from a large enterprise’s perspective and level of rigor for these steps.

4 Phases To Kick Off The Pre-Alpha Version

Analysis: it is the initial stage in software release life cycle or SRLC which involves studying the problem and requirements of a system in detail. It includes analyzing user requirements, critical functionality, identifying the problem area, preparing feasibility reports, and creating SRS (Software Requirement Specification).

Designing: in this stage, development teams develop a solution for the problem that has been identified in the analysis stage. This stage involves writing a high-level design document and mock-ups that explains how to implement the software product. The design document highlights basic steps that need to be followed to build the web application.

Development: this is the actual coding phase where a development team turns the requirement specifications into an actual software product. Once coding is finished, developers will perform testing and handle bug fixes as early as possible.

Unit Testing: this is done by developers before delivering their module to the QA (Quality Assurance) development team for the further testing process. In this phase, developers check each and every line of source code to ensure that the code works properly before it's integrated into the whole app.

2. Alpha Version

The alpha stage represents the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and it's also a code name for the phase of development that takes place before a product is launched. Software developers use the term "alpha" or “alpha version” to describe software that is in its first phase of software testing.

Alpha testing is performed by internal employees or developers within the organization. This type of test is performed at the developer's site but not at the customer's site. Alpha testing is conducted after the completion of the system testing and before the beta testing. This test is done to find out bugs or defects related to usability, functionality, and consistency.

In this type of test, a group of people called 'testers' perform operations similar to end users and then report on any issues they encounter. The main purpose of alpha testing is to ensure that all modules are integrated properly and functioning as expected.

When we went through the Alpha stage for BankerBox, we reached out to fellow peers in product, software, and in our case (building a solution for banks) several investment bankers and contacts in high finance.

Alpha software is feature-complete but likely to have bugs. The focus of alpha testing is to improve a product by catching issues before it goes to beta testing and adding any last-minute tweaks suggested from alpha feedback.

3. Beta Version

The beta stage, named after the second letter of the Greek alphabet, is the code name used to signify that a software product has moved into its second phase of testing and is ready for external use by customers or clients, often referred to as “beta testers”. Some organizations will label this phase as the “Early Adopter” phase.

Once a beta version is released, it generally undergoes heavier testing than it did during its alpha phase. It allows companies to gauge how well their software will perform under real-world conditions.

Once SS&C Intralinks acquired BankerBox, we quickly made some key integration points between our software and the broader companies systems (authentication, cloud servers, etc.). Then we demoed and partnered with several company customers to invite them to “beta test” this solution live on an M&A deal.

This was a great way for us to get feedback, develop a customer relationship, and find areas the software needs to evolve to meet the requirements and “bar” for a Release Candidate (RC) or General Availability (GA).

In this type of test, customers provide valuable feedback about whether the product or app meets their expectations with respect to functionality, usability, performance, reliability, scalability, and so on. The feedback provided by end-users helps improve user experience and correct operational issues prior to product release into production. There are two types of the beta phrase:

  • Open Beta: During this phase, anyone who wishes to participate in the beta testing process to do so. This can help developers identify and handle bug fixes with their product quickly and easily, as feedback from multiple users can shed light on problems.
  • Closed Beta: In this phase, there is a specific target market with specific groups of people that are the testers. The target market helps focus the software testing on specific areas of concern and helps ensure that everything works for the target consumers' needs.

4. Release Candidate

A release candidate (RC) is a pre-release version of the software that is being prepared for its final product release (in the RC phase) to the public. This is sometimes referred to as “Controlled Availability”. Although it may include all of the intended features and functionality and work as expected, it is still subject to change, possibly even radically, based on any feedback received.

Developers may issue several release candidates before releasing the finished product to ensure that the program does not crash under heavy load, does not leak memory significantly, etc.

5. General Availability

General availability (GA) signifies that a product or service has been made available for purchase by most customers (typically globally), usually via commercial channels. In software engineering, this phrase typically refers to a web application or app that is available for all intended users. During this phase, any updates or further developmental work on the product is aimed at enhancing its features and performance in order to make it more marketable to customers.

Once BankerBox, now “Deal Marketing” under the new brand name, hit General Availability, we were able to scale it to customers all across North America and gain valuable feedback, usage numbers, scalability, etc. to validate the product-market fit, before moving onto the final software release life cycle phase, the production release.

6. Production Release

A stable release is a version of a software package that has been tested and verified. It is the latest (and sometimes final version) of a program that is considered safe for public use. This kind of release is also called a “Stable” release.

As a software or web application enters into this phase, it can signal to the broader organization and market the level of readiness your product has. At SS&C Intralinks I tied key cross-functional initiatives as a leader in the product organization to these phases.

At the Production Release phase we were able to put together an offering strategy, full marketing, and sales launches, and the accompanying support needed across customer service, site reliability engineering, and other departments to make the product a success. 

This is considered a complete product by most standards, though there might be a few minor issues with it that are considered acceptable. In some cases, like Linux, there are two types of stable releases: LTS (long-term support) and regular stable releases.

  • Regular Stable releases - are the most common type of release you'll see. They're easy to install (when we talk about OS software) and, as their name suggests, they're stable. If you're looking to test software in a production environment, this is the type of release you usually use. Web applications often will refer to regular stable releases as “Major” releases.
  • LTS (long-term support) releases - are specifically designed for long-term use in production settings. These releases have a longer touch-time than standard stable releases (the average time between LTS releases is three years). This means that they have been extensively tested and are considered more secure than stable releases.

Closing Thoughts

Understanding the various phases of the software release life cycle for a product is a great way for a product manager to level-set and tie cross-functional and customer-related activities to the various stages in the SRLC. This allows for clean segmentation of the product into the broader set of company goals, strategies, and initiatives.

Leveraging these stages as “trigger” points allowed me to successfully integrate my product into a large enterprise company, and time the various motions to ensure success in the marketplace.

Once the SRLC stages are complete, the product has lived through its sales and growth cycles, and the organization sees signals that the product is winding down, the maintenance life cycle starts, which includes:

  • fixing bugs reported by the client during the deployment phase,
  • adding some new features, or
  • modification to existing features as requested by the client according to changing needs and technology advancement.

Finally, at some point, all software products reach end-of-life when they are no longer supported by their developers.

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By Michael Pierce

Michael Pierce boasts an extensive career spanning nearly fifteen years, encompassing roles in entrepreneurship, product management, and software engineering. His diverse experience includes contributions to startups, scale-ups, enterprises, and consultancies. Most recently, he has served as a Director of Product Management, specializing in the GovTech and HealthTech sectors.